Foreign Office fears for Palestine prompted by intercepted Ben-Gurion papers

A blue plaque outside a former residence of David Ben-Gurion in Mayfair (Photo: Simon Harriyott)

A blue plaque outside a former residence of David Ben-Gurion in Mayfair (Photo: Simon Harriyott)

Foreign Office hopes that a resolution to the situation in Palestine could be delayed until after the war were shattered in 1941 after they intercepted the private papers of David Ben-Gurion detailing Zionist objectives and his discussions with Anglo-Jewish leaders.

Secret records released this week at the National Archives reveal that in late 1941 as he set off for America, against a climate of growing British suspicion toward the Zionists, the censorship authorities "removed from Mr Ben Gurion's luggage" papers relating to his time in the UK.

The Foreign Office described the papers as of "first class interest and importance" and circulated them around senior officials, the High Commissioner and later to officials in the United States.

The seized papers included a lengthy study of the status-quo in Mandate Palestine, "Outlines of Zionist policy," in which Ben-Gurion detailed the need for a Jewish army to help the Allied effort (which was never realised) and discussed longer-term strategy for the Zionists. They also included the minutes from a meeting he and Chaim Weizmann had held that September with prominent British Jews, among them Anthony de Rothschild and Sir Robert Waley-Cohen.

Ben-Gurion in 1950 (Photo: Eldan David)

Ben-Gurion in 1950 (Photo: Eldan David)

The meeting yielded little agreement between the parties – indeed, in a March 1942 letter to Chaim Weizmann, also found in the files, de Rothschild said he remained "unalterably opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state" - but the minutes raised fears in the Foreign Office that these individuals, who had previously been avowedly anti-Zionist, were coming round to the Zionist cause.

In a letter of warning, Foreign Office official SEV Luke noted that while de Rothschild and Waley-Cohen, "who no doubt represent a strong body of opinion among British Jewry, showed themselves frankly hostile and apprehensive of the conception of a Jewish state" it was still "not possible to draw much comfort from the cleavage of opinion".

"All those present at the meeting were united on the need for large scale immigration of Jews into Palestine at the first possible opportunity, and were therefore equally united on the need for smashing irrevocably the White Paper policy," he said.

And after reading Mr Ben-Gurion's study he concluded "there is no hope that the question will be allowed to rest where it is… there is now no hope that they would agree to anything less than the whole of Palestine".

Luke explained that it was clear "that we must expect that from now on the Zionist's campaign will steadily increase in intensity irrespective of any embarrassment that it may be likely to cause the British war effort.

"It has hitherto been our assumption that the Palestine question will remain in abeyance until the end of the war," he said. "It is fairly clear from this memorandum that the Zionist leaders will not permit this. They will make every effort henceforth to exert pressure to marshal public opinion on behalf of their programme, and it is specifically stated in the memorandum that the question of immigration of Jews on a large scale to Palestine need not necessarily be deferred until after the war. They consider that, if the military situation permits, there is no reason to await the return of peace".

Although Luke's view of Ben-Gurion's report was that it was "a typical Jewish Agency document, detailed, lucid and logical", Oliver Lyttelton, a minister of state in the Middle East, described it as "the work of a fanatic idealist" and warned that if his scheme was carried out "it would inevitably lead to rebellion from Iraq to the Suez Canal, with strong repercussions in India, Saudi Arabia and Egypt".

The newly released documents also include warnings from between 1941 and 1943 about the tactics of the Stern gang, and discussion of the activities of illegal Jewish organisations operating in Mandate Palestine. "These organisations… constitute a potential danger far more serious than Arab violence," wrote Sir William Battershill, assistant under-secretary of state at the Colonial Office, in March 1942, "since it would be infinitely less easy to meet by the methods which were employed against Arabs".

The documents emphasise the hostility felt by some in the Foreign Office towards the Zionists, with Luke writing in a document in December 1941: "It is impossible not to feel… that in the Zionist organisation we are faced with a most formidable power, fascist in conception, tireless and ruthless in the attainment of its objectives, with great powers of organisation and backed by very important international political support.

"The political ideas and methods described in this memorandum are those which created the Fascist Govt. in Italy, the Communist Govt. in Russia and the National Socialist Govt. in Germany."

Last updated: 1:56pm, May 23 2013